By Mary Rose
By the early 20th century, thousands of recorded observations, drawings, paintings and other images over hundreds of years made scientific predictions of total solar eclipses to geography and time tables startlingly accurate. The endurance of an eclipse could be predicted to within a fraction of a second. Weather patterns were changeable but nearly one hundred years of documentation in many places, even in Western America, helped pinpoint legitimate places for observation. Baker City, OR, was the #1 observation site for the June 8, 1918 total solar eclipse at 3:07 in the afternoon.
That’s the last time Americans have witnessed a transcontinental total solar eclipse, coast to coast. That year it clipped Washington State and reached its ideal epicenter in the Northwest on June 8 at Baker City, Oregon. Congress appropriated $3,500[i] to the Naval Observatory team to watch and document the eclipse after the government determined in February 1918 that Baker City would be the ideal spot, thus ruling out Pocatello, Denver, Dodge City, KS, and Canton, MO.[ii] The first members of the team arrived on April 11 under the leadership of John C. Hammond. Accompanying scientists included an eclipse expert Samuel Alfred Mitchell and Howard Russell Butler, an artist and physicist. Butler’s role was to paint the eclipse at totality after an observation of 112.1 seconds. Butler used a system of taking notes on the colors since reliable color photography was unavailable.
Howard Russell Butler was also an architect, a technical illustrator, an arts administrator, a patent lawyer and, he held a degree in science (1876) from Princeton. He was a leader in fine arts societies and a prolific fundraiser among American philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie. He painted Carnegie’s portrait 13 times, remarking that Carnegie was as elusive to capture in two-hour sittings as was a solar eclipse in less than two minutes.[iii] Butler designed Carnegie’s mansion and because of his association with Carnegie, as well as his friendship with Thomas Edison, Butler was invited to participate as artist in the 1918 eclipse at Baker City. Butler viewed and painted two more eclipses before his death at age 78 in 1934 and he authored a book — Painter and Space in 1923.[iv]
In a recent interview with Ian Blatchford, art historian and director of the Science Museum in London, Blatchford remarked, “There are intriguing occasions when the artistic eye has been of real utility to the scientific process.” [v] In a review of eclipse artwork through the ages, he was struck by the artists’ ability to capture the “ethereal nature of an eclipse” in a way that photographs do not. “When an eclipse happens, you only have a tiny amount of time to observe what’s going on. But of course artists have a great skill of absorbing everything,” he says.[vi]
Blatchford has studied the effects of light captured by eclipse painters on canvas from the early Christian era (“The Vision of St. Benedict” by Cosmas Damian Asam, 1735, is considered by some astronomers to be the first accurate depiction of a total solar eclipse) to the 20th century. Even as photography improved, scientists like John C. Hammond still asked artist Howard Russell Butler to accompany the eclipse expedition. Butler’s work depicted the corona, the glowing, wispy ring visible beyond the dark circle of the moon. This important artwork supported the hypothesis that the corona was the sun’s atmosphere, and not the moon’s.[vii]
Today, when eclipses are well-understood physical phenomena, these rare and strange cosmic events are still imbued with deep mystery and for some, a spiritual or supernatural “otherworldly” experience.[viii] Artists of the 21st century may also capture this predisposition to intrigue better than the camera. “Even if you know what is happening, why it’s happening,” said Blatchford, “is a different question, isn’t it?”[ix]
Europe was long noted for its scientific experts but as World War I raged across its battlefields, American scientists seized the opportunity to soar with the 1918 momentary plunge into darkness. The eclipse crossed North America from Washington State to Florida. Afterward, reports revealed new facts about the hypothesized element coronium, the blood-red streamers 2.5 million miles long, the coronal arches and “other wonders of the sun’s corona.”[x] Oregon’s Daily Capital Journal encouraged readers to perform their own scientific observations and ask questions like, “How does the moon that is 400 times smaller than the sun block out the sun?” ANSWER: The moon is roughly 400 times closer to the earth than to the sun.
Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity in 1915. Based on his theory, he predicted that light would be deflected when passing near a massive object such as the sun. This could be validated by observing stars in their already-known positions near the sun as they appeared during the total eclipse. The U.S. scientists sent west in 1918 hoped to validate Einstein’s theory. As the time came for totality the Naval Observatory team at Baker City eagerly awaited the appearance of twinkling stars in mid-afternoon. Sadly, that day, they watched as clouds obscured the sun and no stars appeared. The clouds did clear, but during the team’s most important observations the sun was covered by a thin cloud. Five minutes later – the sun was completely visible once more. Einstein’s theory remained untested until the next year in another part of the world. Sir Arthur Eddington conducted an expedition to the island of Principe (off the west coast of Africa) to test the most brilliant physics theory of all time. A total solar eclipse occurred there on May 29, 1919 with a maximum duration of totality of 6 minutes 51 seconds, it was one of the longest solar eclipses of the 20th century. Einstein’s theory was proven valid.[xi]
People were just as concerned about “eclipse blindness” in 1918 as they were during eclipses documented back to the early 1500’s. There were numerous accounts, legends and family stories about blindness from looking at the sun during an eclipse but very few cases were tracked and documented over time. Some sources remarked that children and young adults were the most vulnerable and the difficulty is that the moon’s dark shadow discourages the natural reflex to turn away from the bright light of the sun. The June 8, 1918, Laramie Republican noted, “[O]ne may look at … [the eclipse] through a pinhole in a piece of paper or through a dark glass … easily smoked by a candle or oil lamp.” The Republican cautioned, “One must be very careful to have the glass so dark that the sun does not dazzle the eye at all.”[xii] In 1777, Captain James Cook remarked that he could not participate in recording the solar eclipse in the South Pacific because he had forgotten his smoked glass.[xiii]
Let’s hope people remember their manners in a crowd watching an eclipse: “One of the largest crowds ever seen in Alliance [NE] Saturday viewed the eclipse of the sun,” reported the Alliance Herald on June 13, 1918. “All those who did not have smoked glasses grabbed the ones held by someone else, no matter whether they knew them or not.”[xiv]
This year, several Native American tribes across the nation have invited the world to join them in celebrating the Eclipse of 2017. In the Northwest, the Warm Springs Nation will host the “Indian Head Tipi Village” with concerts and dancing and eclipse artwork by the internationally-known Warm Springs tribal member Lillian Pitt. At the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, the National Park will be open special hours Monday, August 21, from 9 AM to 1 PM for families to find a comfortable viewing spot on the open grounds and share the event with others. The Visitor Center will be open those hours and Park Rangers will assist viewers who visit the site. A public talk about the history of eclipses in the Northwest by Mary Rose will be presented in the Visitor Center.
Wherever you are and whatever you do have a safe and happy total eclipse experience. The next total solar eclipse to cross near the Pacific Northwest will be August 12, 2045, stretching from Northern California to Florida. After that on September 14, 2099, a total solar eclipse will cross from British Columbia to the mid-Atlantic seaboard in the States.[xv] The next annual solar eclipse is October 14, 2023, but it may not be quite so spectacular as the “Great American Eclipse” of August 21, 2017.
[i] Approximately $61,680 in 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse_of_June_8,_1918
[iv] Ed. Note: For those keenly interested in Butler’s methods and note taking, please see: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/transient-effects/painter-sun/eclipse-paintings-howard-russell-butler/butlers-methods
[v] Boyle, Rebecca. “How Artists Have Depicted Eclipses Across History,” The Atlantic, 2016/09.
[xiii] Rose, Mary. “Plunge Into Darkness: Earliest Recorded Solar Eclipses of the Pacific Northwest,” Tributaries: A Confluence History Blog. http://www.confluenceproject.org/blog/plunge-into-darkness-earliest-recorded-solar-eclipses-in-the-pacific-northwest/